10/08 assignments

Jackie Brusco
Two observations:
1.     I notice in all three stories, that money was a concern for the characters.  They were all struggling to attain or save money. 
2.     I notice in all three stories the main characters (Natalie, Waldeen, and Belle) are on the verge of changing their relationship status.  Each author (Beattie, Robinson, Mason) picked that one moment where the character has a shift in feelings about their partner.
3.     I notice in all three stories, a dead person was an interval part of moving the story forward (Natalie’s uncle who left her the car, Belle’s father, and Joe’s grandparents).
Two Questions:
1.     1.What is Anne Beattie’s purpose for ending Shifting with the line: “This was in 1972, Philadelphia”?
2.     2. How do writers feel about being categorized into Kmart Realism?

Joe Pfister


1) I was struck by the endings of all three of the stories this week: Anne Beattie's last line ("This was in 1972, in Philadelphia") comes out of left field and has nothing to do with what I thought was an otherwise satisfying ending; "Pretty Ice" ends with a line so obvious ("Smiled back at Will—knowing it would be for the last time") that it nearly ruined the rest of the story for me—from a writer's perspective, it would've been so much better if she'd just left that out, considering the sentiment was already there (we knew this relationship was over already); and "Graveyard Day" concludes with Waldeen jumping in a pile of leaves, possibly signaling that she isn't ready to get married again? Not sure. 
2) I thought it was interesting how quickly Bobbie Ann Mason wanted to separate herself from "Kmart Realism" while Frederick Barthelme seemed to embrace his role in postmodernism.

1) Why has "Kmart Realism" developed such a negative connotation? (Despite my reservations about the endings of "Shifting" and "Pretty Ice," on the whole, I enjoyed all of these stories quite a bit.)
2) "Kmart Realism" seems to have a connection with the South (Frederick Barthelme, Mary Robinson, Bobbie Anne Mason, etc.). Why do you think that is?

Kevin Zambreno

1. Two Questions
a. Why do we have the tendency to group writers using (borderline meaningless) terms like "Kmart Realism" or "Minimalism" (or anything else for that matter)? (i'm not trying to criticize this grouping for the class, because it obviously happens and it'd be silly to ignore or avoid it. I'm just curious as to maybe why it happens, why people like categorizing fiction writers, or even art in general.)

b. Does anyone else find the term "Kmart Realism" kind of classist? (again I'm not trying to bitch about this assignment). Classist might be a bit strong. It's just that using a discount store as a term of derision kind of leaves a sour taste in my mouth. The implication I get from the words "Kmart Realism" is "realistic stories about lower-middle class people," which is kind of annoying anyway because plenty of well-to-do people shop at Kmart or Target or Wal-Mart, even though the stereotype is that they don't. There are negative categorizations like "hysterical realism" (James Wood coined this to describe novels like White Teeth and Infinite Jest) that don't implicitly use socioeconomic factors in their critique. 
I don't know. it bothers me.

2. Two Thoughts

a. These writers don't seem groupable at all. Herzinger asks this question at the beginning of her intro to the Mississippi Review, but the thought occurred to me as I was going through the stories. Maybe insofar as they knew each other, but even still, they knew Don DeLillo and Donald Barthelme too, people who are usually considered more "postmodern."  Putting the four stories we were assigned side-by-side, and even throwing in things like Ford's "Communist" or Carver's "A Small Good Thing" (they seem like the most well-known of the "minimalists" Herzinger cites), you have six stories that I think do a lot of different things, come to different conclusions, showcase different characters. 
Content-wise there's just about nothing as far as I can tell, except that they are "realistic," which is just a way of saying that there's no magic/nonexistent technology/fantasy etc. As a matter of writing style none of them use words I'd need to look up, so there's that. I think just about anyone can read them. But they're not all super terse, bare bones stories like I think the word "minimalism" implies. When I think of "minimalism" I think of maybe Hemingway, stories like "Hills Like White Elephants" where there's minimal description and minimal interiority and everything's really implicit. (I recognize that this is totally arbitrary too, since everyone I'm sure has a different conception of "minimalism," but these are my thoughts and I'll stand by them). 
"Driver" actually has quite a lot of description I think—you get a physical sense of the car and all the characters (women esp.). It's just description though, and you don't get a sense of what the characters are thinking (which I liked but that's beside the point). Beattie by contrast has a third person story that really gets in the head of Natalie, her thoughts, feelings, perceptions, etc. I liked that too. In "Graveyard Day" Waldeen's past relationships keep sneaking into the story, while the others stories are all very oriented in the present. "Pretty Ice," at the last line, sneaks into the future a little bit. These are just things I noticed.

b. The term Kmart Realism does not seem accurate at all, from this sampling. The narrator in "Driver" is well off enough to buy the most expensive car on the lot and Larry in the Beattie story is an academic--not the people you generally associate with lower-middle class, which the term "Kmart Realism" I think implies they would be. The "Driver" narrator very explicitly does not have money problems. It's a bit implicit when Natalie and Larry are talking in "Shifting" about the car it seems like they added insurance would be a temporary burden and they otherwise wouldn't have money for a vacation, but Larry is also confident that they will have money in the future as his career moves forward, and the money we can tell is not really the issue when she keeps the car. Waldeen in "Graveyard Day" doesn't seem very well-educated and watches a shitload of TV it seems but I don't think any direct indication is made of her financial status.
"Pretty Ice" is the only story of the three that seems to deal with people with financial troubles.

Sheila Traub

Questions provoked by the reading:
1.     Please discuss you own (Tao Lin’s) views of minimalism as a genre and how it does or does not inform your view of Kmart Realism.
2.     Could you talk about whether or not you think Waiting for Godot has an influence on Kmart realism?
Observations or thoughts that the reading triggered:
1.     “Kmart realism,” in the very limited exposure to it that I’ve had, seems to distinguish itself partly by being determinedly linked to the what once was referred to as the lower classes.  I wonder if minimalism as a term might not permit the embracing of the very concrete and real without selecting out a rather broad hunk of readers, i.e., without being class conscious.  I wonder if the name does it a disservice. None of the writings we read from Barthelme, Mason, and Beattie seems to indicate reverse snobism. The name of the genre seems to indicate its adherents might have that issue, but if the roots include Joyce, Beckett, Hemingway , and Nabokov -- to say nothing of Emerson and Thoreau -- that feels not fully appropriate.
2.     The absence of religion as an influence of some of these authors was mentioned in at least of the readings.  I can see I am too much of a neophyte in the tradition to know whether or not I agree, or to know whether the role of religion broadly in America is, in fact a shaping force, more prominent for its absence.
3.     I wondered several times what the British equivalent to Kmart realism there may be (maybe because I was busy reading Virginia Wolff and Kasuo Ishiguro while I also was doing this reading.  

Sam Courant

There seems to be a tendency to show characters reacting strangely to the events of the story and a reluctance to offer any explanation for this reaction.

It seems that all the stories tend to conclude on an unexpected note and that this surprise is often contained in the very last sentence of the piece.

When Herzinger refers to the irony that "minimalism" (scare quotes) eschews, what exactly does he mean? Are the stories themselves ironic? Are the characters? The voice?

What's the significance of Philadelphia in 1972?

Sara Arnell


What marks this style more: content/theme or writing style (short sentence structures)?

Is the term still considered derogatory or has it evolved to a more descriptive term?


The stories are not always depressing or bleak in their depictions of a gritty or hard-working life.

The sentences style is efficient, which keeps the story moving along, especially when the plot or action is not very energetic or expansive

Katie Rainey

So, I'm having trouble coming up with some decent observations to all these readings. I really enjoyed reading everything, especially the interview with Ann Beattie. I suppose something that stuck with me is the fact that these writers are really against being classified into the "kmart realism" or "minimalist" categories. Maybe "against" is the wrong term, but they certainly don't seem to think that this category fits them as a writer. And I would have to agree. These writers differ greatly to me, so it is hard to see them in categorized together. I understand that a lot of the characters in these stories don't "think aloud" and their problems tend to not be concrete issues that can be highlighted by the reader. But, I guess I just need to know more about Kmart realism in order to understand. I can't think of any specific questions. I am interested in knowing more and how this term came about.

Joanna Benjamin

1. All of the protagonists in the four stories we read are dealing with the ability or inability to assert agency over their own lives. This seems like a common theme in K-mart Realism.

2. In their interviews, some of these writers cite influences that seem so different from how they write - for example, Bobbie Ann Mason mentions Donald Barthelme (seems like many K-mart Realists were into him, which is interesting), Joyce, Nabokov, says she's "sitting on the toe of Thoreau's boot." (which is awesome) I guess this is normal - if we all wrote just like our influences there would be no interesting writers or evolution in the craft - but it seems particularly pronounced in this case.

1. Why was the term "K-mart Realism" considered derogatory? Was it intended that way or just taken that way? What about it do we see as derogatory or not derogatory?

2. In the Frederick Barthelme interview, the interviewer asks him about postmodernism, and claims that the "histories of postmodernism...will cite [his] work as an example." Can an author be considered a postmodernist and a  K-mart realist? I was sort of under the impression that they were kind of at odds with each other? I'm curious if people see aspects of postmodernism in "Driver.". (he says in the interview: "The only way the term might have to do with me is that I made a conscious effort to combine the emphasis on surface that characterized the "postmodernism" of Don and others, Gass, I guess, with something a little bit new in subject (going toward the mundane instead of away from it, having discovered that when so addressed the mundane routinely became fanciful and extravagant).")

Micah Weiss

I am glad to get exposed to these stories, I would never read it otherwise, and if I started it in my free time, I would put it down after a page.   I am somewhat intrigued that it is an entire movement (bicker away on the edges of the definition, it is a movement to me), that it spans close to half a century, that people still aspire to this type of writing, and others still desire to read it.  These are all questions that I ask with sincerity, and only a touch of sarcasm, I really would like to know what people like about this kind of writing.  
I honestly don't get it, and I think I figured out a piece of it.  In the essay bey Kim Herzinger, she writes that minimalists don't have characters that "think out loud" nor do they think of themselves as "sociologists, psychologists, or moralists" and that is I think why all their characters bore me, and why the stories manage to say little or nothing of import.  They must pick boring people to write stories about because interesting people take positions on these things, and the writers are careful not to be seen as presumptuous or pretentious, like they wouldn't want anyone to get the wrong idea that they might, you know, believe in something.  So the "characters" in these stories, all of the four I read, must be from a certain class, or have a certain blindness to them when it comes to thought, reflection, self-awareness, moral and philosophical beliefs, they must be, oddly nut essentially, completely different from the class of people who read and write the stories.  
Therein lies the inherent condescension, the true pretension, the real presumption of the entire genre, that they write for a new yorker audience, but none of their characters would ever pick up the new yorker.  
And what does that say about the audience, and as I asked my wife last night, why do I want a piece of these people?  The New Yorker audience is the only stable literary audience in the America.  It has a circulation of just over a million, and I could probably reduce that to less than half that read it for the fiction, and that is a very small, narrow, specific demographic.  Maybe a fraction o that number read lit-journals, maybe another fraction are professors and students giving and reading assignments, respectively, another fraction are the writers and aspiring writers, and there is, surely some overlap, but this population is no larger than a sixth of  percent of the population of our country, and hardly calculable as a percent of the english speaking world, etc.  What is it that these several thousand people find compelling in this sort of fiction, and why do I find it occasionally compelling too?  (Cathedral, What We Talk about When We Talk About Love, being two of my favorite short stories.)
Whatever it was, its mostly dead for me now, and these voices bland, old, tired, worn-out.  And worse, the older I get, the more empty the stories feel, and the less I believe the characters, and I have absolutely no feelings for them, or about them.  At least not in this sampling.    

I have a lot to say about this, particularly after reading the Herzinger essay, but I will leave it at that for now.  

Brittney Decker

In Mary Robinson’s story “Pretty Ice” I wondered what was the significance of the flashback of her father’s suicide or if there was any.

I was really surprised at the ending of Ann Beattie’s story “Shifting”. It is as if the author is stepping in and saying: “By the way this really happened.” I wonder what impact the author was trying for by ending the story this way.

I think it is a very interesting idea that in the story “Graveyard Day” Waldeen thinks a burial plot, not a diamond ring, symbolizes the promise of marriage.

Something that really stood out to me from Frederick Barthelme’s story “Driver” was when the main character casually mentions driving past his secretary’s apartment.  


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